Half of the cobalt blue seats in student section of the Petersen Event Center remained empty as the Pitt men’s basketball team battled UC Santa Barbara on the court Nov. 15. On the first shot, only a sparse showering of ripped-up newsprint filled the air.
But even during the out-of-conference game following a couple of hard losses, section leaders of the Oakland Zoo ran back and forth across the student section, leading in rowdy chants and overall revelry.
The Oakland Zoo — a usually raucous section of devoted student basketball fans — may have been quieter this season, but passionate students still show up at the Pete, regardless of a lack of attendance.
For Ben Linsey, a junior industrial engineering major, this was his first year as a section leader for the Zoo. He said despite the rough season — one where Pitt went 0-19 in the ACC — there is still a major amount of pride that comes from leading the Zoo.
“Being a Zoo leader means carrying on the great Zoos before us,” Linsey said. “Being a Zoo leader means trying to carry that on — one of the best environments in basketball.”
On average, 4,117 people attended Pitt men’s basketball games for the 2017-2018 season, about a 50 percent drop from the 2016-17 season’s average of 8,327. But even when the student section was thin, the section leaders — a group of students who lead the Zoo chants — and loyal fans continued to go to games and show their support for the men’s basketball team.
Two Pitt students decided to create the Zoo during the 2000-01 basketball season because they were displeased with the unlively student section at the time. Support for the Zoo grew from there, also aided by the opening of the Petersen Events Center for the 2002-03 season.
The Zoo historically made the Petersen Events Center a tough environment for other teams to play in. Players, analysts and publications consistently rated the venue as one the nation’s most difficult venues because of the raucous crowd.
During particularly hot seasons — like in 2016, when the Panthers last made the NCAA tournament and former head coach Jamie Dixon was leading the charge — students wielding air mattresses and fleece throws would sleep over in the lobby of the Pete to snag the best seats in the section the night before big games.
This year, the same enthusiasm was seen at some of the Panther’s biggest games, such as those against Duke and the Backyard Brawl against West Virginia, but nothing compared to the days of yore when games were a 24-hour event.
On the season, the team stumbled to an overall 8-25 record, finishing 0-19 in the ACC. Fans felt the effects of the team’s struggle, with the Petersen Events Center seeing record lows in attendance.
Even through a bleak bout, Pitt fans can look forward to the young team’s chance for improvement next year. Despite the team’s many losses, they had a few tight games, losing to Notre Dame team 67-64 and hanging in against a ranked West Virginia team, although ultimately falling 69-60.
“It’s just a really good group of guys,” Linsey said about the team. “We’re excited to watch them grow. Obviously, when a group of young guys comes together with that many freshmen, there will be growing pains.”
Shane Powers, a first-year finance major, attended all but one of the Panthers’ home games this season. He said being a fan in the Zoo allowed him to experience other students’ school spirit.
“My favorite one was definitely the West Virginia one,” Powers said. “There were a lot of West Virginia fans at the game, but we kept it pretty close.”
This year’s game against Duke was especially memorable for the Zoo. Mike Limbacher, a junior mechanical engineering major, also in his first season as a section leader, recalled it as one of the team’s best moments.
“The Duke game this year was the second highest attendance in history, and we got JuJu to be there, which was really cool,” Limbacher said, referring to Pittsburgh Steelers star JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Even though the game was a blowout, with Pitt falling to the Blue Devils 87-52, Limbacher said he could feel the enthusiasm and support the crowd had for the team.
“We still had fun cheering on our team and school,” he said.
After a first round loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, Heather Lyke, Pitt’s director of athletics, announced the firing of head coach Kevin Stallings. His tenure at Pitt was stained by a 4-33 record within conference play over the course of two seasons. In the wake of the firing of head coach, Limbacher talked about the Oakland Zoo’s support.
“We want to support our team as much as we can, no matter who is the coach,” Limbacher said.